2012 City Council Candidate Questions
1. Reason for running: What are the top three goals you want to achieve in the next four years on the city council?
I am volunteering for a community service job. The Palo Alto City Council election is November 6.
No glamour -- just simple principles:
-- We need to prioritize City expenditures and make room for infrastructure reserves. In a word — Discipline. Responsible spending that makes room for repair of aging infrastructure. Build a future with sustainable financial balance.
-- Curb abuses of zoning loopholes that do not honor the spirit of the City's Comprehensive Plan, causing congestion, and sidesteps funding of increased demand on infrastructure and schools.
-- Protect the integrity of fees charged to the Utility Enterprise Fund, to assure that Utility rate payers are not used to avoid financial responsibility.
In summerary, I am committed to filter all actions through the lens of environmental responsibility and demonstrate openness, transparency, and fairness in all council actions.
Additional note from Tim: A sure way to protect the momentum of forward progress is to avoid getting distracted on issues that might seem important at the time, but are not aligned with the declared priorities. Keeping an intense focus will allow the Council to be decisive and get the job done. I will honor and strengthen the tradition of setting priorities to reflect the greatest public benefit. Once the community has spoken, we’ll get moving on implementing these plans.
Non-incumbents: Describe your personal experience with Palo Alto City government and recent issues that have come before public hearings at the city council or other board and commissions. What was your role? (For example, did you send an email, speak to the Council, lead a group of citizens, etc.?) How extensively were you involved?
Incumbents (Burt, Schmid): What have been your major initiatives on the Council? Describe your role and the results.
I was spurred to community service in 2007 when former Mayor Vic Ojakian lamented the lack of community participation in City government. I was inspired, and having worked in Community Service nearly all of my career, most notably as a member of the Finance leadership that created the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford. I was well-trained in the Stewardship of a Public Trust, and I had learned what can be accomplished with the spirit of cooperation and a clear shared vision. I felt the City could use not only my financial skills as a Certified Public Accountant, but also the skills of finding common ground in a large organization with competing priorities. I learned by jumping in and attending meetings, speaking at council, and writing letters to the editor advocating Citizen Participation, greater inclusiveness of the residents in Government, financial discipline, and freedom from special interests.
The Stanford Hospital and the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital expansion was a major issue for the Council, and I advocated for the life-saving benefits that the project offered, with fairly quantified mitigations for the traffic and housing – which was resolved on a very positive basis for the City. Since my wife works at the Children’s Hospital, and Hospital expansion was a top issue even past the 2009 election, it was viewed that the fact that I could not be an suitable representative on this issue. Even though I only spend $800 on my campaign in 2009, I contributed by bringing Financial Discipline to the forefront of the conversation. I was the first to point out that the Labor Union funding of the local candidates represented a Conflict of Interest. It was at first very controversial, and then later understood to be an accepted truth.
The letters to the editor and times I have spoke to the Council are too many to mention, but I have been consistent vocal advocate for financial discipline, transparency in government, and community justice (City government is our first line of defense for constitutional issues.)
Finally, Civic Engagement is so much more that City activities. I was recruited by Dr. Walter Bortz (Palo Alto Physician and Healthy Aging Expert) to serve on the Board of Directors of the Age Center Alliance and served many years on the Board of Directors for East Palo Alto Teen Home (mission was to allow young girls to finish high school by providing them with a safe place to live.)
My advocacy for responsible government continues. The web site www.Vote4Gray.com restates the letters to the editor and Council presentations that most recently have been around Financial Discipline, moderation of Mega Projects and proper valuation of Community Benefits, and moving forward in matching the progress of our neighbor cities in the public access of our waterfront. Environmentalism tempered by fiscal responsibility and always being on the lookout for regional cooperation are some constant themes.
3. Infrastructure: What are your suggestions for how to fund infrastructure improvements? Which do you view as priorities?
Streets, sidewalks, and public safety are priorities.
The City Infrastructure report categorized the "Infrastructure Deficit" as in several categories like "Catch up", "Keep Up", "Special Projects" or replacement needs, and then there are prudent reserves for future needs. We all know that things don't "wear out" all at once, but we do know with some precision the "useful lives" of those assets and setting up prudent reserves for the day they do break is a common business practice.
Whether the "Deficit" is $300 million or $400 million does not change the need for fundamental change in the City's budgeting and spending.
Last year the budget did make room for setting aside $2 million for future reserves, but we need to do more. Perhaps $6 million would be a start. We need to roll out the data that compares Palo Alto with other cities, and trim to those levels. There are assertions that Palo Alto has management costs greater than cities twice its size. The size of our unfunded Healthcare benefits and Pension cost may offer greater surprises as we dig deeper.
Like him or not, Bill Clinton said it best: "It's arithmetic!" Collectively we need to say: "Show me the numbers."
Sure, belt-tightening is painful, and it does not make friends, but it is essential that we make financial balance our number one priority. Pushing the problem off to the future with a bond measure only creates greater deficits. Let's get the job done. The sooner the better.
The Palo Alto political machinery is gearing up to “Sell” the community on the idea of a bond measure to fund the infrastructure deficit.
I certainly understand the need to fix our roads and sidewalks, to underground the utility lines, and to replace the Public Safety Building before a potential disaster comes our way.
The big deception headed our way is that if you don’t support a big bond measure, you are not supporting public safety.
We do have a giant infrastructure deficit, and that happened one year at a time by spending all our revenue on operations by letting repairs fall behind or not setting aside an appropriate reserve for known future needs.
That is like a family that uses their “available” cash to take an extra Hawaii vacation each year. Then, when faced with not having enough money to keep their roof from falling in, they raid their children’s piggy banks and college education funds.
Before we go to the voters and ask for a bailout, we need to show a little financial discipline to at least provide a standard and prudent “down payment” by reducing our operating expenses to fund future infrastructure needs by more than the token $2 million that was offered in the current budget.
The formula is clear – prioritize spending on services and then reduce from the bottom. It will be uncomfortable, but not nearly as painful if we don’t do something different than the past. To borrow a commonly known question, “If you keep doing the Same Old Stuff, what makes you think you are going to have a different result?”
We can do better, and it starts with finding at least another $5 million in operating expense to reduce, and use it as a “down payment” on our future. We don’t have to look too far to see what happens when we adopt a “zero down, figure out how to pay for it later” approach.
A shared community vision on spending priorities is the only cure. We cannot accept anything less. By borrowing from our future, we will surely strangle the creativity that has made this place great, because we will be in a position of paying for our historical excesses, vs. building a brighter future. Financial discipline does not strangle, but rather preserves the opportunity to create. We can do better.
4. Planned Community (PC) Zoning: Planned Community zoning is controversial because it is routinely used to avoid having to conform to existing zoning based on the Comprehensive Plan.
• What is your perspective on the use of this zoning? Use specific examples to illustrate your points.
We need to Curb abuses of zoning loopholes that do not honor the spirit of the City's Comprehensive Plan, causing congestion, and sidesteps funding of increased demand on infrastructure and schools.
Reforms should include: First, a clear and objective statement of growth that exceed the regular or historical standards and what that means for traffic, water use, sewage use, school utilization, and overall service increases. Second, a consistent and objective analysis of what that proportional infrastructure use will cost. Eventually new schools will have to be built and new sewage plants constructed. Future costs must get funded at approval time. Pay up on day one! Don't hand off the problem to the future. Third, community benefits have to be objectively consistently quantified. Fourth, greater public input on what public benefits are needed for the community.
For the projects that have been approved, I would like to have seen better setbacks that offer an inviting front that is more in character with our neighborhoods. The adjacent neighborhoods always seem to bear the brunt of parking overflow, no matter how optimistic the plans for public transit use seem to be. Alma plaza is an example of “in-your-face” developments because we have failed to provide any setback from the street that is even close to preserving the character of the neighborhood. The density on the Ricky’s Hyatt was not fitting with the neighborhood, and the area is left to disproportionately share the burden, but the Community Benefit was absent. The community provided all the community amenities and the value went to the developer, leaving the residents with increased demands on roads, water, sewer, and the experience of increased traffic.
• How would monitor and enforce the public benefits?
Public benefits could be enforced by having the developer offer a compliance plan and the funding required to measure the compliance as a condition of approval. A bond could be posted that would be released back to the developer based on proportional performance, so the compliance would simply become the rule of contract law.
5. 50-foot height limit: More and more projects are requesting to exceed the 50-foot height limit, yet there has not been a policy discussion on if or when this limit could be exceeded. What do you think about the limit? What actions would you advocate?
Exemptions to the 50-foot rule were allowed by the rules to give flexibility where it might be better for the site to save tree, or natural area and go up a little, vs. having strict rules work against the greater good or community benefit. And yes, there may be some areas around the rail corridor that might enhance the community, and provide for affordable housing, which both improves the jobs to housing imbalance and addresses the need to protect the economic diversity of our town.
With the latest Megaproject coming to the Palo Alto Council under Planned Community Zoning, resident must be ready to verify and quantify the proposed “Community Benefit” or we will end up with future growth that causes us to shake our heads and say “How did this happen?”
We all know about the Comprehensive Plan sincerely tried to present a Shared Community Vision around growth.
However, our history is rich with anecdotal evidence that the Planned Community Zoning, has readily been hijacked. We can do better. We need to hold the City leaders’ feet to the fire and demand the following standards:
1. A clear and objective statement of growth that exceed the regular or historical standards and what that means for traffic, water use, sewage use, school utilization, and overall service increases.
2. A consistent and objective analysis of what that proportional infrastructure use will cost. Eventually new schools will have to be built and new sewage plants constructed. Future costs must get funded at approval time. Pay up on day one! -- don’t hand off the problem to the future.
3. Community benefits have to be objectively consistently quantified.
4. And did anyone ask the residents how they would prioritize the Community Benefits that might be offered by the developer? Yes, we need a Solution to our Public Safety facilities, but it that our top priority right now?
The process can be used for the greatest good, or it can be a currency used to achieve pet projects when it is inconvenient to adhere to a shared community vision. Just say no to these potential manipulations, or dealing out favors, and insist on an objective and consistent process that sets the gold standard for transparency and inclusiveness.
6. Development impacts: The City has been criticized for allowing developers to understate the impacts of their projects (such as parking, traffic and schools), and thus avoid implementing measures to successfully mitigate these impacts. How much of a problem is this? What changes are needed?
This is a major issue that simply makes our infrastructure deficit keep growing. . As mentioned in the previous answer, the City needs a consistent and objective analysis of what that proportional infrastructure use will cost. Eventually new schools will have to be built and new sewage plants constructed. Future costs must get funded at approval time. Pay up on day one! -- don’t hand off the problem to the future.
7. ABAG mandates: What is your position on the validity of the numbers ABAG is assigning to Palo Alto for housing and how does that fit in to the overall vision for livability in Palo Alto? What are some alternative ways the city could respond to the growth targets generated by this state agency?
We must pursue a regional solution as jobs and housing balance cannot be addressed by the close political boundaries that exist on the Peninsula. We do have the responsibility to look at what additional housing could be build within the context of our Comprehensive plan and encourage progress on that goal. However, at some time, we have to say “the room is full” and not allow an external agency the power to undo the Character of this town that we have so carefully nurtured. We can welcome a reasonable amount of growth while maintaining that cherished character, however we can’t allow these outside forces to simply be used by developers to manipulatively force mega-projects that deteriorate the character of our town.
Let’s pursue a robust conversation with our neighboring Cities before we allow our outsiders to dictate a future that generations of caring residents have nurtured and made sacrifices to protect.
8. High-density housing: Are you in favor of high-density housing in Palo Alto? If so, why and where? If not, why not? Where are the best locations for additional housing, what would be the impacts on the infrastructure in those areas, and how should it be paid for?
Modest density allowance can be appropriate around transportation corridors, provided that there is well thought and real mitigations for impacts to the surrounding neighborhoods. The full value of any extra density permitted must be paid for with quantifiable community benefits, and the cost of the proportional burden on streets, sidewalks, sewer, water, and especially school must be paid for upfront, and held in an irrevocable trust specifically for those purposes.
9. Retail: How would you support the retail sector? Specifically, how would you protect, support and possibly even extend ground-floor retail in our commercial and neighborhood commercial areas?
This is an important part of retaining the character of our town, and working toward our goal of preserving a pedestrian / bike – friendly community.
The conversion of retail to office space on the ground floor is troubling, and really diminishes the allure of our existing shopping districts. I don’t know enough about the detail rules to know if this might be an opportunity for the Council to take some action to preserve historical uses.
An obvious measure would be to stop the conversion of retail into office and housing, and simply make neighborhood accessible retail a priority in the planning approval process.
10. Business license tax: Do you think Palo Alto should create a business license tax? How should it be structured given the number of home businesses in town?
I oppose a business license tax. However, there be a community purpose for creating a business registry, and charging a modest registration fee. I do mean Modest. Like $25. Any attempt to have this hijacked into a revenue source to excuse the needed City belt-tightening would be inappropriate.
11. Fry’s: The Fry's site is scheduled to revert to residential zoning in a few years. How would you keep Fry’s in Palo Alto?
We certainly need to preserve our sales tax base, so this is project that should have some dedicated attention from the City staff, Council, and community volunteers. This purpose would be a great opportunity to bring in a broad spectrum of residents to find a creative solution. To be candid, I don’t know the answer. Could we relocate some functions from our Municipal Services Center and create a site there that would have ready access to the freeway, and effectively eliminate many trips into an area that is already a traffic bottleneck. Objective data will show the way to the right solution. We need to give that a high level of focus.
12. Budget: How do you plan to fund the city's long-term pension and health benefits liability? How serious is the impact of this liability to the City’s future?
Budget a certain amount of dollars from the operating budget to pay back the historical excesses that were delivered by previous City leaders.
Negotiate for new employees to have a different retirement benefits. Benefits that are competitive with the private market place, or a defined contribution plan like the one that is in place at Stanford University and Medical Centers.
Honor historical contracts, but look at other municipalities and imitate their best practices in reducing the pension liability, moving as many as possible to defined contribution plans and comparable employee contributions to the plan.
It is essential that we get this funding started so that it does not create a permanent dark shadow over the City’s ability to fund creative and innovative opportunities that will surely be presented in the future. A starting place is to take a fixed amount of money from the operating budget and pay down our liability. We failed to pay for these operating costs in our past budgets, and now we have to face the day of reckoning. It really is that simple, and putting another face on it would be disingenuous. (Self-deceiving) . Be wary of any voice that talks about issuing a bond measure to fund this operating liability, as that is just handing off the problem to the future. While we have modified the benefits structure somewhat, we need to take additional steps. Honoring our prior agreements is important, but we must look to other cities for best-practices in managing these costs, including offering closer to market rate benefits for new employees. Everyone knows that life-time health insurance as a benefit went out in the 60’s and that the pensions far exceed anything that is available in the market – even “A-Grade” employers like Stanford University. This still allow the City to offer top compensation packages to recruit the best employees, but brings the benefits into line with the market. Most importantly, this restores a balance, and makes things more sustainable. Nobody wins if commitments are made that cannot be kept.
13. Flood Control: Are you satisfied with the progress toward flood control for the San Francisquito Creek and the bay? If not, what additional steps would you push for?
We need to continue to work with Stanford to assure that all measures for upstream mitigation is in place. I have given full focus to the budget and development, and have not heard much noise about this issue. I know that several repairs have been funded and completed, and if there is additional regional cooperation and solutions that are needed, I would personally dedicate as much time as need to make sure that the creek flow is never a threat to our neighborhoods. Safety for the entire community really trumps all other priorities.
14. Policy Impacts: What State or Federal level policy (e.g., ABAG, HSR, sustainability) that you might influence do you see affecting the City most heavily? How would you work to influence it during your term?
A regional solution to the Housing / Jobs ratio must be pursued unless we simply allow an outside agency to dictate the future character of our town that is inconsistent with our entire history. We must preserve the character of our community. We can just lay down.
We must continue to make progress on making sure that High Speed Rail does not divide and deteriorate our neighborhoods, like the plans that have been proposed. Yes, we have a commuter rail line that is occasionally used by freight, down the center of our town, but the HSR plan is a completely different animal. For example, just because you have a street running in front of your home does not mean that it would be OK to build a super-highway like 101 down the middle of town. We must be vigilant in finding a modified plan, like ending the line in San Jose, with upgraded connector trains that are electrified.
We are faced with a future where funds from Federal sources might become more scarce, so we need to inventory our City services, prioritize, and then moderate spending or pursue more public / private cooperation that brings the City’s operating budget into balance, and makes ample room for infrastructure (catch-up, keep-up, special projects, and significant down payments on new facilities.)
In the end, we can right-size government services and end the continued cycle of infrastructure deficits. This would then give us flexibility to continue to create, and perhaps catch up with our neighboring Cities in making our water-front a public place of enjoyment.
15. Cubberley: The City owns 8 acres of the Cubberley site and the PAUSD owns the other 27. Currently, the City rents the school district’s portion for use as a community center. However, the district wants the option of converting some or all of the site back to schools at some undetermined time. This will most likely result in the displacement of a range of social services and community activities currently hosted there. What do you see as the best use of the Cubberley site and why?
Cubberly presents a unique opportunity for our community to expand our historical dedication to education. We need to preserve the historical use as an educational resource – not necessarily as a public school. With that said, we need to keep the land in the control of the City, with the express dedication to an educational purpose. We need to develop a shared community vision about what the next century needs are to supplement the education resources. The core principle here is that our community is rich with educational vision, but short on land and space to make it happen, so we need to keep the place reserved as an incubator for a yet-to-be defined educational vision, consistent with Palo Alto’s educational heritage.
16. Meeting Effectiveness: What would you do to improve the effectiveness of Council meetings? Should highly complex issues be the only item on the agenda, or alternatively, should a separate council meeting be scheduled?
Talk less, listen more, do my homework (commit the time) before the meetings, and create opportunities for greater Citizen Participation so that there is a broader community understanding of the Council’s actions.
17. Future: Apart from fiscal issues, what do you see as the biggest problems facing Palo Alto over the next decade?
With stewardship of the environment as the constant backdrop, moderating growth, and protecting the character of our City, and to avoid the temptation to sell off our park lands and skies. Being able to make room for more people while maintaining our character is a real challenge. We are in danger of becoming a gated office park if we don’t protect and promote retail areas, and make significant progress in creating walkable neighborhood communities. As traffic intensifies, we need to find creative ways to keep our neighborhoods tied together.
We must not allow the very things that we came here for to be erased. We have a consistent value of appreciating nature and valuing education, and if we are not careful, we might dilute the core reasons people have sought out Palo Alto.
18. (Optional) Unasked Question: If there is a question you think we should have asked, ask and answer it.
Question: Have you ever received support from the Unions? If so, when?
Answer: NO. I believe that it is a conflict of interest to accept donations from any group that has significant contracts or negotiations with the City.
Question: Have you signed up for Palo Alto Green, and how long have you participated?
Answer: I have been a member of the group that buys renewable energy since 2007.
What actions have you personally taken to help the environment?
I drive a CNG (Natural Gas) car, eat a vegetarian / fish diet, have saved several heritage trees, invested in the preservation of forest land, my wife and I adopted three children, and in general, care for the Earth is at the forefront of my values. We pay extra for our utilities so that green energy is encouraged. To the extent possible, we purchase organic products, or at least more environmentally friendly products.